D&C 42:14 is a complex, enigmatic verse. On the one hand, no on in the church today is surprised that we ought to have a “prayer of faith” and that the Spirit is something important to seek.
On the other hand, what do we do with this part of the verse: “and if ye receive not the Spirit, ye shall not teach.”
Is this verse of scripture something we can take seriously in the 21st century?
Can we apply this verse to all members, teaching in a variety of settings?
BYU has a scripture index where you can search through all the conference talks from Joseph’s and Brigham’s recorded sermons right through October 2010 and see who has quoted a particular verse. I searched this index for D&C 42:11-14 and looked to see if anyone actually took this verse seriously enough to tell the Saints to “not teach.”
What I discovered was that most people use the verse for the first part: “And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith.” Hardly anyone mentions the second half of the verse, except once in a while to emphasize something like “See? The Spirit’s important. So teach with it.” And many, many talks simply quote the verse with no additional commentary on any part of it!
The early talks in the Journal of Discourses were the only ones to address this head on. For example,
I am surrounded with those who know by experience that we are dependent upon the influence and inspiration of the Holy Ghost to enable us to teach the things of the kingdom of God. My faith is that no man, in this or any other generation, is able to teach and edify the inhabitants of the earth without the inspiration of the Spirit of God. As a people we have been placed in positions the last forty years which have taught, in all our administrations and labors, the necessity of acknowledging the hand of God in all things. We feel this necessity today. I know that I am not qualified to teach either the Latter-day Saints or the world without the Spirit of God. I desire this this afternoon, and also your faith and prayers, that my mind may be led in a channel which may be beneficial to you. In my public teaching I never permit my mind to follow in any channel except that which the Spirit dictates to me, and this is the position we all occupy when we meet with the Saints, or when we go forth to preach the Gospel.
Wilford Woodruff said this in 1873. He believes D&C 42:14 completely: “I never permit my mind to follow in any channel except that which the Spirit dictates to me” and he assumes “this is the position we all occupy.”
Orson Pratt talked about experiences where he tried to teach without the Spirit, and felt “entirely closed up” and his teaching was “unsatisfactory to my own mind, and I presume to those who heard me” (1872 J of D vol 15). He also said this, in relation to D&C 42:
our own judgment, thoughts and reflections are not what the Lord requires; but he does require, and has required, ever since the rise of this Church, that his servants should speak by the power of the Holy Ghost.
I think this would actually be a comfort to most Latter-day Saints preparing a talk or a lesson. Our own judgments, thoughts and reflections are not what the Lord requires – you will feel your weakness as you prepare to teach. But is required, and also promised, that we teach by the Spirit. And that does of course bring us some anxiety: how do we know we have got the Spirit?
These few talks in the Journal of Discourses are the only ones I can find where this direction to “not teach” without the Spirit is taken so seriously, though the verse had several dozen references in the index. Elder Oaks talked about us using this verse and D&C 50 so often in the church in general, that they have become “slogans” we use but never think about (…1997).
These familiar references portray the essence of all teaching in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are so familiar they are almost slogans, yet we are in danger of using them without understanding them.
That was certainly what I saw, that the verse was quoted over and over again usually with no commentary at all. It was just thrown out there as if it stood on its own, and as if it was expected of them to include the verse because that’s just what one does.
So how do we begin thinking this verse in light of the place it has in D&C 42?
D&C 42 contains a “law” that was promised to the Saints. (see D&C 38). (Footnote: Note that D&C 38 addresses the same issues as D&C 42, as if it were preparing their minds or acting as a preview. It talks about teaching, taking care of the poor, laboring and not being idle, saving Israel, elders going forth, a land of inheritance, and Zion!) It is most known for its passage on what we call the “Law of Consecration.” It contains instructions regarding the consecrating of properties and the principles that went along with those directions. A person consecrated “unto me” – the Lord – and was held accountable as a steward. A person’s property was not her or his own but a resource the Lord could use for His work in the Kingdom.
(footnote: Though it may be said that D&C 42’s law of consecration is outdated, and therefore the rest of D&C 42 is as well, we can’t overlook how often verse 14 is quoted and also how Elder Eyring talked of consecration in this past general conference! (footnote: April 2011) Indeed I think Elder Eyring’s talk suggests that the law of consecration is alive and well in the church today, and we can’t through out section 42 simply because historical circumstances have changed.)
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Verse 14 falls near the beginning of the promised “law.” Verses 11-14 were actually the beginning of a separate section at one point, with verses 1-10 and verses …. being combined at a later point. So originally, the “law” to govern the church began with the question of teaching.
Within these verses is a reference to the “covenants and church articles” (verse 13). This was another name for D&C 20, and the closer I looked the more I realized that D&C 11-14 was a review of things already discussed in D&C 20. In order to better understand D&C 42:14, it is important to see what these verses are reviewing, and what else was said there in D&C 20.
D&C 42: 11 dictates that any person who preaches or builds up the church must follow this procedure: they must be one, ordained, two, ordained by someone with authority, and three, the people of the church know that the person ordaining has authority. D&C 20: 60-67 lay out the rules of ordaining elders, priests, teachers, and deacons. D&C 20:60 states that all of these must be ordained, ordained by one with “power of the Holy Ghost,” and D&C 20:64 says that these “may take a certificate from him at the time, which certificate, when presented to an elder, shall entitle him to a license, which shall authorize him to perform the duties of his calling.” Additional details are given in verses 62-62 and 65-67. The short account in D&C 42 verse 11 is simply a summary of the instruction already given in D&C 20:60-67.
D&C 42 verse 12 explains what the elders, priests, and teachers ought to teach. They are instructed to “teach the principles of the gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon.” Verse 12 also notes that the Book of Mormon has a “fulness of the gospel.” D&C 20 does not include specific instructions on what to teach, but verses 17-36 are dedicated to rehearsing some of these “principles of the gospel.” President Benson saw these verses as “summarizing the vital truths which the Book of Mormon teaches.” D&C 20:9, like D&C 42:12, also states that the Book of Mormon “contains … the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” D&C 20: 11-12 suggest that the Book of Mormon “proves to the world” that the Bible and its principles are true.
Verse 13 of D&C 42 refers the elders, priests and teachers directly to D&C 20, calling the text the “covenants and church articles.” They are also told to teach “as they shall be directed by the Spirit.” D&C 20:45 gives this direction to the elders (and by implication of verse 49 and 56, to the priests and teachers as well): “The elders are to conduct the meetings as they are led by the Holy Ghost, according to the commandments and revelations of God.” D&C 20:45 and D&C 42:13 have a the same formula: rely on the things already written as led by the Spirit.
Verse 14 is where this short passage goes beyond summarizing D&C 20. Verse 14 reads: “And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach.”